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What cows can teach us about empathy

By Felicity Mitchem

Published on: April 28, 2015

Felicity Mitchem explores human-centred design and empathy, bringing it all together with cows.

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Empathy is a social skill that has become a buzzword in the design world.

The idea of using empathy as a design advantage is not new. Twenty years ago we began to see a shift from design having an objective perspective, where designers would work from their own assumptions, to a human-centred perspective, in which designers involved users in the process and put them at the heart and centre of the process.

Empathy is one of multiple ‘mindsets’ that form the Human-Centred-Design (HCD) methodology, that international innovators IDEO are famous for championing. Tim Brown of IDEO is often quoted saying, “empathy is at the heart of design. Without understanding what others see, feel and experience, design is a pointless task.”

HCD works on the premise that acquiring a deep understanding of users’ unarticulated needs (through empathy) inspires creativity and innovation. By discovering simple human insights, we can identify needs that the user themselves may not recognise – thus allowing companies to get ahead of competitors by doing what customers haven’t asked for, enhancing their experiences, delighting, and sometimes surprising them. 

Today, this HCD philosophy and approach is beginning to gain momentum across industries, and corporations are adopting the tools and methodologies of the HCD process to help them develop more innovative solutions.

Successful email marketing company MailChimp considers empathy as core to their brand and product; a key differentiator. According to Aaron Walter of MailChimp, “when everyone can create very quickly, what is it that will distinguish your product or brand from the rest? Caring for your customers. In order to do that it requires you to think from their perspective.”

The practice of empathetic design involves observation of users in their environments, in the course of everyday habits. It’s a method that is closer to anthropology then to market science. Author and professor at the Harvard Business School Dorothy Leonard comments that the oft-repeated advice to “delight the customer” acquires real meaning when products or services push beyond what their customers anticipate, to deliver the unexpected. Henry Ford famously said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”.

The challenge for designers, marketers or brands, is adopting this empathetic mindset

What does this actually mean, this idea of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes for the benefit of innovation?

Psychology textbooks will give you two definitions of empathy – Affective, and Cognitive. Affective empathy describes a shared emotion response, or a mirrored response. So if you see someone sad, you too feel sad, you are mirroring their emotions. Cognitive empathy is about perspective taking; stepping into someone else’s world and understanding their worldview, beliefs, fears, and experiences that shape how they see the world and how they look at themselves.

One particular case that illustrates the power and simplicity of using empathy is from Temple Grandin, a professor of animal science. Temple is famous for innovating in the livestock industry.

Livestock facilities had been built in a way that caused livestock to experience anxiety, fear, and pain when being transported. After noticing the way animals reacted to their environment, Temple offered a simple solution to the way livestock are handled and slaughtered for meat production, so that the process is more humane, and animals would go to their deaths calmly and without fear.

Off the back of a simple insight that animals reacted adversely when being lead in a straight line, she designed adapted curved corrals, which reduced the stress, panic and injury in animals being led to slaughter, making the process much more humane and safe, and apparently, improving the quality of meat.

What is interesting about this example of empathetic design (apart from its blatant simplicity), is that Temple is also a famous Autism affected advocate; the fundamental distinction of autism disorders being the inability to experience empathy.

So what was unique about Temple’s approach?

By using her ability to see the world in a different way, Temple developed a deeper understanding of animal behaviour. She observed and understood their behaviour with an unaffected standpoint, leading to the simple insight of changing a straight path to a curved path.

For the rest of us, our past experience, reasoning and knowledge of social and emotional behaviours might lead us to assume that, well, cows are just dumb animals and that’s just what they do. 

To understand how to achieve this open, unprejudiced understanding of our users, we can look at what Daniel Gilbert, emotional intelligence author, describes as “roadblocks to empathy” – or common mistakes that we make that lead to assumptions and judgements.

1. Idealism – People see things as they expect them to be.

The lack of evidences to show other information beyond people’s expectations may lead them to underestimate or overestimate the situation.

2. Egoism – People see things as they want them to be.

Egoism happens when observations are personally invested on specific beliefs, keeping them under any circumstance, and predicting other’s behaviours, feeling and experiences based only on that conviction.

3. Realism – People think they see things as they are.

It is the misinterpretation of someone’s situation projected from the observer’s own perspective. It is very difficult for them to consider they have misinterpreted the information, and if they do so, they tend to believe their inferences were triggered by something in the scene, rather than accepting that they might reach a conclusion based on their own expectations and beliefs.

4. Circumstantialism – People think about only the things they see

This phenomenon refers to the inability to connect information related to others that is not present at that moment in the situation although obtainable. It also relates with failures connecting information we know but for some reason we do not relate it to that specific condition.

So to approach a challenge with empathy is not only to understand the users’ circumstance and what their challenges are, but to do so with a completely open mind and a willingness to ask the stupid questions. To achieve true empathy you need to set aside personal beliefs, expectations, values, and actively seek out further evidence in a non-judgemental or filtered manner.

Empathy is about experiencing something as they – the customer or user does – not from your own perspective.

Even if they are cows.

This article was first published on Hello Tomorrow.

Hello Tomorrow is published fortnightly at 9amAEST on Wednesdays and includes regular insights, resources and tools for purpose-driven leaders.

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